The Military Art : Weapons, Engines, Discipline – Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements

Governments and Laws : Greek and Roman Jurisprudence
The Fine Arts : Architecture, Sculpture, Painting
Ancient Scientific Knowledge : Astronomy, Geography
Material Life of the Ancients : Mechanical and Useful Arts
The Military Art : Weapons, Engines, Discipline
Cicero : Roman Literature
Cleopatra : The Woman of Paganism
Pagan Society : Glory and Shame

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements
John Lord

Topics Covered
The tendency to violence and war
Early wars
Progress in the art of war
Egyptian armies
Military weapons
Chariots of war
Persian armies, Cyrus
Greek warfare
Spartan phalanx
Alexander the Great
Roman armies
Hardships of Roman soldiers
Military discipline
The Roman legion
Importance of the infantry
The cavalry
Military engines
Ancient fortifications
Military officers
The praetorian cohort
Roman camps
Consolidation of Roman power

The Military Art : Weapons, Engines, Discipline

1300-100 A.D.

In surveying the nations of antiquity nothing impresses us more forcibly than the perpetual wars in which they were engaged, and the fact that military art and science seem to have been among the earliest things that occupied the thoughts of men. Personal strife and tribal warfare are coeval with the earliest movements of humanity.

The first recorded act in the Hebraic history of the world after the expulsion of Adam from Paradise is a murder. In patriarchal times we read of contentions between the servants of Abraham and of Lot, and between the petty kings and chieftains of the countries where they journeyed. Long before Abraham was born, violence was the greatest evil with which the world was afflicted. Before his day mighty conquerors arose and founded kingdoms. Babylon and Egypt were powerful military States in pre-historic times. Wars more or less fierce were waged before nations were civilized. The earliest known art, therefore, was the art of destruction, growing out of the wicked and brutal passions of men,–envy and hatred, ambition and revenge; in a word, selfishness. Race fought with race, kingdom with kingdom, and city with city, in the very infancy of society. In secular history the greatest names are those of conquerors and heroes in every land under the sun; and it was by conquerors that those grand monuments were erected the ruins of which astonish every traveller, especially in Egypt and Assyria.

But wars in the earliest ages were not carried on scientifically, or even as an art. There was little to mark them except brute force. Armies were scarcely more than great collections of armed men, led by kings, either to protect their States from hostile invaders, or to acquire new territory, or to exact tribute from weaker nations. We do not read of military discipline, or of skill in strategy and tactics. A battle was lost or won by individual prowess; it was generally a hand-to-hand encounter, in which the strongest and bravest gained the victory.

One of the earliest descriptions of war is to be found in the Iliad of Homer, where individual heroes fought with one another, armed with the sword, the lance, and the javelin, protected by shields, helmets, and coats of mail. They fought on foot, or from chariots, which were in use before cavalry. The war-horse was driven before he was ridden in Egypt or Palestine; but the Aryan barbarians in their invasion rode their horses, and fought on horseback, like the modern Cossacks.

Until the Greeks became familiar with war as an art, armies were usually very large, as if a great part of the population of a country followed the sovereign who commanded them. Rameses the Great, the Sesostris of the Greeks, according to Herodotus led nearly a million of men in his expeditions. He was the most noted of ancient warriors until Cyrus the Persian arose, and was nearly contemporaneous with Moses. The Trojan war is supposed to have taken place during the period when the Israelites were subject to the Ammonites; and about the time that the Philistines were defeated by David, the Greeks were forced by war to found colonies in Asia Minor.

After authentic history begins, war is the main subject with which it has to deal; and for three thousand years history is simply the record of the feats of warriors and generals, of their conquests and defeats, of the rise and fall of kingdoms and cities, of the growth or decline of military virtues. No arts of civilization have preserved nations from the sword of the conqueror, and war has been both the amusement and the business of kings. From the earliest ages, the most valued laurels have been bestowed for success in war, and military fame has eclipsed all other glories. The cry of the mourner has been unheeded in the blaze of conquest; even the aspirations of the poet and the labors of the artist have been as nought, except to celebrate the achievements of heroes.

It is interesting then to inquire how far the ancients advanced in the arts of war, which include military weapons, movements, the structure of camps, the discipline of armies, the construction of ships and of military engines, and the concentration and management of forces under a single man. What was that mighty machinery by which nations were subdued, or rose to greatness on the ruin of States and Empires? The conquests of Rameses, of David, of Nebuchadnezzar, of Cyrus, of Alexander, of Hannibal, of Caesar, and other heroes are still the subjects of contemplation among statesmen and schoolboys. The exploits of heroes are the pith of history.

The art of war must have made great progress in the infancy of civilization, when bodily energies were most highly valued, when men were fierce, hardy, strong, and uncorrupted by luxury; when mere physical forces gave law alike to the rich and the poor, to the learned and the ignorant; and when the avenue to power led across the field of battle.

We must go to Egypt for the earliest development of art and science in all departments; and so far as the art of war consists in the organization of physical forces for conquest or defence, under the direction of a single man, it was in Egypt that this was first accomplished, about seventeen hundred years before Christ, as chronologists think, by Rameses the Great.

This monarch, according to Wilkinson, the greatest and most ambitious of the Egyptian kings, to whom the Greeks gave the name of Sesostris, showed great ability in collecting together large bodies of his subjects, and controlling them by a rigid military discipline. He accustomed them to heat and cold, hunger and thirst, fatigue, and exposure to danger. With bodies thus rendered vigorous by labor and discipline, they were fitted for distant expeditions. Rameses first subdued the Arabians and Libyans, and annexed them to the Egyptian monarchy. While he inured his subjects to fatigue and danger, he was careful to win their affections by acts of munificence and clemency. He then made his preparations for the conquest of the known world, and collected an army, according to Diodorus Siculus, of six hundred thousand infantry, twenty-four thousand cavalry, and twenty-seven thousand war-chariots. It is difficult to understand how a small country like Egypt could furnish such an immense force. If the account of the historian be not exaggerated, Rameses must have enrolled the conquered Libyans and Arabians and other nations among his soldiers. He subjected his army to a stern discipline and an uncomplaining obedience to orders,–the first principle in the science of war, which no successful general in the world’s history has ever disregarded, from Alexander to Napoleon. With this powerful army his march was irresistible. Ethiopia was first subdued, and an exaction made from the conquered of a tribute of gold, ivory, and ebony. In those ancient times a conquering army did not resettle or colonize the territories it had subdued, but was contented with overrunning the country and exacting tribute from the people. Such was the nature of the Babylonian and Persian conquests. After overrunning Ethiopia and some other countries near the Straits of Babelmandeb, the conqueror proceeded to India, which he overran beyond the Ganges, and ascended the high table-land of Central Asia; then proceeding westward, he entered Europe, nor halted in his devastating career until he reached Thrace. From thence he marched to Asia Minor, conquering as he went, and invaded Assyria, seating himself on the throne of Ninus and Semiramis. Then, laden with booty from the Eastern world, he returned to Egypt after an absence of thirty years and consolidated his empire, building those vast structures at Thebes, which for magnitude have never been surpassed. Thus was Egypt enriched with the spoil of nations, and made formidable for a thousand years. Rameses was the last of the Pharaohs who pursued the phantom of military renown, or sought glory in distant expeditions.

We are in ignorance as to the details of the conquests and the generals who served under Rameses. There is doubtless some exaggeration in the statements of the Greek historian, but there is no doubt that this monarch was among the first of the great conquerors to establish a regular army, and to provide a fleet to co-operate with his land forces.

The strength of the Egyptian army consisted mainly in archers. They fought either on foot or in chariots; cavalry was not much relied upon, although mention is frequently made of horsemen as well as of chariots. The Egyptian infantry was divided into regiments, and Wilkinson tells us that they were named according to the arms they bore,–as “bowmen, spearmen, swordsmen, clubmen, slingers.” These regiments were divided into battalions and companies, commanded by their captains. The infantry, heavily armed with spears and shields, formed a phalanx almost impenetrable of twelve men deep, who marched with great regularity. Each company had its standard-bearer, who was an officer of approved valor; the royal standards were carried by the royal princes or by persons of the royal household. The troops were summoned by the sound of trumpet, and also by the drum, both used from the earliest period. The offensive weapons were the bow, the spear, the javelin, the sword, the club, or mace, and the battle-axe. The chief defensive weapon was the shield, about three feet in length, covered with bull’s hide, having the hair outward and studded with nails. The shape of the bow was not essentially different from that used in Europe in the Middle Ages, being about five feet and a half long, round, and tapering at the ends; the bowstring was of hide or catgut. The arrows of the archers averaged about thirty inches in length, and were made of wood or reeds, tipped with a metal point, or flint, and winged with feathers. Each bowman was furnished with a plentiful supply of arrows. When arrows were exhausted, the bowman fought with swords and battle-axes; his defensive armor was confined chiefly to the helmet and a sort of quilted coat. The spear was of wood, with a metal head, was about five or six feet in length, and used for thrusting. The javelin was lighter, for throwing. The sling was a thong of plaited leather, broad in the middle, with a loop at the end. The sword was straight and short, between two and three feet in length, with a double edge, tapering to a sharp point, and used for either cut or thrust; the handle was frequently inlaid with precious stones. The metal used in the manufacture of swords and spear-heads was bronze, hardened by a process unknown to us. The battle-axe had a handle about two-and a-half feet in length, and was less ornamented than other weapons. The cuirass, or coat of armor, was made of horizontal rows of metal plate, about an inch in breadth, well secured together by bronze pieces. The Egyptian chariot held two persons,–the charioteer, and the warrior armed with his bow-and-arrow and wearing a cuirass, or coat of mail. The warrior carried also other weapons for close encounter, when he should descend from his chariot to fight on foot. The chariot was of wood, the body of which was light, strengthened with metal; the pole was inserted in the axle; the two wheels usually had six spokes, but sometimes only four; the wheel revolved on the axle, and was secured by a lynch-pin. The leathern harness and housings were simple, and the bridles, or reins, were nearly the same as are now in use.

“The Egyptian chariot corps, like the infantry,” says Wilkinson, “were divided into light and heavy troops, both armed with bows,–the former chiefly employed in harassing the enemy with missiles; the latter called upon to break through opposing masses of infantry.” The infantry, when employed in the assault of fortified towns, were provided with shields, under cover of which they made their approaches to the place to be attacked. In their attack they advanced under cover of the arrows of the bowmen, and instantly applied the scaling-ladder to the ramparts. The testudo, a wooden shelter, was also used, large enough to contain several men. The battering-ram and movable towers resembled those of the Romans a thousand years later.

It would thus appear that the ancient Egyptians, in the discipline of armies, in military weapons offensive and defensive, in chariots and horses, and in military engines for the reduction of fortified towns, were scarcely improved upon by the Greeks and Romans, or by the Europeans in the Middle Ages. Yet the Egyptians were an ingenious rather than a warlike people, fond of peace, and devoted to agricultural pursuits.

More warlike than they were the Assyrians and the Persians, although we fail to discover any essential difference in the organization of armies, or in military weapons. The great difference between the Persian and the Egyptian armies was in the use of cavalry. From their earliest settlements the Persians were skilful horsemen, and these formed the guard of their kings. Under Cyrus, the Persians became the masters of the world, but they rapidly degenerated, not being able to withstand the luxurious life of the conquered Babylonians; and when they were marshalled against the Greeks, and especially against the disciplined forces of Alexander, they were disgracefully routed in spite of their enormous armies, which could not be handled, and became mere mobs of armed men.

The art of war made a great advance under the Greeks, although we do not notice any striking superiority of arms over the Eastern armies led by Sesostris or Cyrus. The Greeks were among the most warlike of all the races of men; they had a genius for war. The Grecian States were engaged in perpetual strifes with one another, and constant contention developed military strength; and yet the Greeks, until the time of Philip, had no standing armies. They relied for offence and defence on the volunteer militia, which was animated by intense patriotic ideas. All armies in the nature of things are more or less machines, moved by one commanding will; but the Greek armies owed much of their success to the individual bravery of their troops, who were citizens of States under constitutional forms of government.

The most remarkable improvement in the art of war was made by the Spartans, who, in addition to their strict military discipline, introduced the phalanx,–files of picked soldiers, eight deep, heavily armed with spear, sword, and shield, placed in ranks of eight, at intervals of about six feet apart. This phalanx of eight files and eight ranks,–sixty-four men,–closely locked when the soldiers received or advanced to attack, proved nearly impregnable and irresistible. It combined solidity and the power of resistance with mobility. The picked men were placed in the front and rear; for in skilful evolutions the front often became the rear, and the rear became the front. Armed with spears projecting beyond the front, and with their shields locked together, the phalanx advanced to meet the enemy with regular step, and to the cadence of music; if beaten, it retired in perfect order. After battle, each soldier was obliged to produce his shield as a proof that he had fought or retired as a soldier should. The Athenian phalanx was less solid than that of Sparta,–Miltiades having decreased the depth to four ranks, in order to lengthen his front,–but was more efficient in a charge against the enemy. The Spartan phalanx was stronger in defence, the Athenian more agile in attack. The attack was nearly irresistible, as the soldiers advanced with accelerated motion, corresponding to the double-quick time of modern warfare. This was first introduced by Miltiades at Marathon.

Philip of Macedon adopted the Spartan phalanx, but made it sixteen deep, which gave it greater solidity, and rendered it still more effective. He introduced the large oval buckler and a larger and heavier spear. When the phalanx was closed for action, each man occupied but three square feet of ground: as the pikes were twenty-four feet in length, and projected eighteen feet beyond the front, the formation presented an array of points such as had never been seen before. The greatest improvement effected by Philip, however, was the adoption of standing armies instead of the militia heretofore in use throughout the Grecian States. He also attached great importance to his cavalry, which was composed of the flower of the nobility, about twelve hundred in number, all covered with defensive armor; these he formed into eight squadrons, and constituted them his body-guard. The usual formation of the regular cavalry was in the form of a wedge, so as to penetrate and break the enemy’s line,–a manoeuvre probably learned from Epaminondas of Thebes, a great master in the art of war, who defeated the Spartan phalanx by forming his columns upon a front less than their depth, thus enabling him to direct his whole force against a given point. By these tactics he gained the great victory at Leuctra, as Napoleon likewise prevailed over the Austrians in his Italian campaign. In like manner Philip’s son Alexander, following the example of Epaminondas, concentrated his forces upon the enemy’s centre, and easily defeated the Persian hosts by creating a panic. There was no resisting a phalanx sixteen files deep, with their projecting pikes, aided by the heavily armed cavalry, all under the strictest military discipline and animated by patriotic ardor. This terrible Macedonian phalanx was a great advance over the early armies of the Greeks, who fought without discipline in a hand to hand encounter, with swords and spears, after exhausting their arrows. They had learned two things of great importance,–a rigid discipline, and a concentration of forces which made an army a machine. Under Alexander, the grand phalanx consisted of 16,384 men, made up of four divisions and smaller phalanxes.

In Roman armies we see a still further advance in the military art, as it existed in the time of Augustus, which required centuries to perfect. The hardy physique and stern nature of the Romans, exercised and controlled by their organizing genius, evolved the Roman legion, which learned to resist the impetuous assaults of the elephants of the East, the phalanx of the Greeks, and the Teutonic barbarians. The indomitable courage of the Romans, trained under severest discipline and directed by means of an organization divided and subdivided and officered almost as perfectly as our modern corps and divisions and brigades and regiments and companies and squads, marched over and subdued the world.

The Roman soldier was trained to march twenty miles a day, under a burden of eighty pounds; to swim rivers, to climb mountains, to penetrate forests, and to encounter every kind of danger. He was taught that his destiny was to die in battle: death was at once his duty and his glory. He enlisted in the army with little hope of revisiting his home; he crossed seas and deserts and forests with the idea of spending his life in the service of his country. His pay was only a denarius daily, equal to about sixteen cents of our money. Marriage for him was discouraged or forbidden. However insignificant the legionary was as a man, he gained importance from the great body with which he was identified: he was both the servant and the master of the State. He had an intense esprit de corps; he was bound up in the glory of his legion. Both religion and honor bound him to his standards; the golden eagle which glittered in his front was the object of his fondest devotion. Nor was it possible to escape the penalty of cowardice or treachery or disobedience; he could be chastised with blows by his centurion, and his general could doom him to death. Never was the severity of military discipline relaxed; military exercises were incessant, in winter as in summer. In the midst of peace the Roman troops were familiarized with the practice of war.

It was the spirit which animated the Roman legions, and the discipline to which they were inured that gave them their irresistible strength. When we remember that they had not our firearms, we can but be surprised at their efficiency, especially in taking strongly fortified cities. Jerusalem was defended by a triple wall, the most elaborate fortifications, and twenty-four thousand soldiers, besides the aid received from the citizens; and yet it fell in little more than four months before an army of eighty thousand under Titus. How great must have been the military science that could reduce a place of such strength, in so short a time, without the aid of other artillery than the ancient catapult and battering-ram! Whether the military science of the Romans was superior or inferior to our own, no one can question that it was as perfect as it could be, lacking any knowledge of gunpowder; we surpass them only in the application of this great invention, especially in artillery. There can be no doubt that a Roman army was superior to a feudal army in the brightest days of chivalry. The world has produced no generals greater than Caesar, Pompey, Sulla, and Marius. No armies ever won greater victories over superior numbers than the Roman, and no armies of their size ever retained in submission so vast an empire, and for so long a time. At no period in the history of the Roman empire were the armies so large as those sustained by France in time of peace. Two hundred thousand legionaries, and as many more auxiliaries, controlled diverse nations and powerful monarchies. The single province of Syria once boasted of a military force equal in the number of soldiers to that wielded by the Emperor Tiberius. Twenty-five Roman legions made the conquest of the world, and retained that conquest for five hundred years. The self-sustained energy of Caesar in Gaul puts to the blush the efforts of all modern generals, unless we except Frederic II., Marlborough, Napoleon, Wellington, Grant, Sherman, and a few other great geniuses whom warlike crises have developed; nor is there a better text-book on the art of war than that furnished by Caesar himself in his Commentaries. The great victories of the Romans over barbarians, over Gauls, over Carthaginians, over Greeks, over Syrians, over Persians, were not the result of a short-lived enthusiasm, like those of Attila and Tamerlane, but extended over a thousand years.

The Romans were essentially military in all their tastes and habits. Luxurious senators and nobles showed the greatest courage and skill in the most difficult campaigns. Antony, Caesar, Pompey, and Lucullus at home were enervated and self-indulgent, but at the head of their legions they were capable of any privation and fatigue.

Sale of Slaves in a Roman Camp After the painting by R. Coghe

The Roman legion was a most perfect organization, a great mechanical force, and could sustain furious attacks after vigor, patriotism, and public spirit had fled. For three hundred years a vast empire was sustained by mechanism alone. The legion is coeval with the foundation of Rome, but the number of the troops of which it was composed varied at different periods. It rarely exceeded six thousand men; Gibbon estimates the number at six thousand eight hundred and twenty-six men. For many centuries it was composed exclusively of Roman citizens. Up to the year B.C. 107, no one was permitted to serve among the regular troops except those who were regarded as possessing a strong personal interest in the stability of the republic. Marius admitted all orders of citizens; and after the close of the Social War, B.C. 87, the whole free population of Italy was allowed to serve in the regular army. Claudius incorporated with the legion the vanquished Goths, and after him the barbarians filled up the ranks on account of the degeneracy of the times. But during the period when the Romans were conquering the world every citizen was trained to arms, like the Germans of the present day, and was liable to be called upon to serve in the armies. In the early age of the republic the legion was disbanded as soon as the special service was performed, and was in all essential respects a militia. For three centuries we have no record of a Roman army wintering in the field; but when Southern Italy became the seat of war, and especially when Rome was menaced by foreign enemies, and still more when a protracted foreign service became inevitable, the same soldiers remained in activity for several years. Gradually the distinction between the soldier and the civilian was entirely obliterated. The distant wars of the republic–such as the prolonged operations of Caesar in Gaul, and the civil contests–made a standing army a necessity. During the civil wars between Caesar and Pompey the legions were forty in number; under Augustus, but twenty-five. Alexander Severus increased them to thirty-two. This was the standing force of the empire,–from one hundred and fifty thousand to two hundred and forty thousand men, stationed in the various provinces.

The main dependence of the legion was on the infantry, which wore heavy armor consisting of helmet, breastplate, greaves on the right leg, and on the left arm a buckler, four feet in length and two and a half in width. The helmet was originally made of leather or untanned skin, strengthened and adorned by bronze or gold, and surmounted by a crest which was often of horse-hair, and so made as to give an imposing look. The crests served not only for ornament, but to distinguish the different centurions. The breastplate, or cuirass, was generally made of metal, and sometimes was highly ornamented. Chain-mail was also used. The greaves were of bronze or brass, with a lining of leather or felt, and reached above the knees. The shield worn by the heavy-armed infantry was not round, like that of the early Greeks, but oval or oblong, adapted to the shape of the body, such as was adopted by Philip and Alexander, and was made of wood or wicker-work. The weapons were a light spear, a pilum, or javelin, over six feet long, terminated by a steel point, and a short cut-and-thrust sword with a double edge. Besides the armor and weapons of the legionary, he usually carried on the marches provisions for two weeks, three or four stakes used in forming the palisade of the camp, besides various tools,–altogether a burden of sixty or eighty pounds per man. The legion was drawn up eight deep, and three feet intervened between rank and file, which disposition gave great activity, and made it superior to the Macedonian phalanx, the strength of which depended on sixteen ranks of long pikes wedged together. The general period of service for the infantry was twenty years, after which the soldier received a discharge, together with a bounty in money or land.

The cavalry attached to each legion consisted of three hundred men, who originally were selected from the leading men in the State. They were mounted at the expense of the State, and formed a distinct order. The cavalry was divided into ten squadrons. To each legion was attached also a train of ten military engines of the largest size, and fifty-five of the smaller,–all of which discharged stones and darts with great effect. This train corresponded with our artillery.

The Roman legion–whether it was composed of four thousand men, as in the early ages of the republic, or six thousand, as in the time of Augustus–was divided into ten cohorts, and each cohort was composed of Hastati (raw troops), Principes (trained troops), Triarii (veterans), and Velites (light troops, or skirmishers). The soldiers of the first line, called Hastati, consisted of youths in the bloom of manhood, who were distributed into fifteen companies, or maniples. Each company contained sixty privates, two centurions, and a standard-bearer. Two thirds were heavily armed, and bore the long shield; the remainder carried only a spear and light javelins. The second line, the Principes, was composed of men in the full vigor of life, divided also into fifteen companies, all heavily armed, and distinguished by the splendor of their equipments. The third body, the Triarii, was composed of tried veterans, in fifteen companies, the least trustworthy of which were placed in the rear; these formed three lines. The Velites were light-armed troops, employed on out-post duty, and mingled with the horsemen. The Hastati were so called because they were armed with the hasta, or spear; the Principes for being placed so near to the front; the Triarii, from having been arrayed behind the first two lines as a body of reserve. The Triarii were armed with the pilum, thicker and stronger than the Grecian lance, four and a half feet long, of wood, with a barbed head of iron,–so that the whole length of the weapon was six feet nine inches. It was used either to throw or thrust with, and when it pierced the enemy’s shield the iron head was bent, and the spear, owing to the twist in the iron, still held to the shield. Each soldier carried two of these weapons, and threw the heavy pilum over the heads of their comrades in front, in order to break the enemy’s line. In the time of the empire, when the legion was modified, the infantry wore cuirasses and helmets, and carried a sword and dagger. The select infantry were armed with a long spear and a shield; the rest, with a pilum. Each man carried a saw, a basket, a mattock, a hatchet, a leather strap, a hook, a chain, and provisions for three days. The Equites (cavalry) wore helmets and cuirasses, like the infantry, having a broadsword at the right side, and in the hand a long pole. A buckler swung at the horse’s flank. They were also furnished with a quiver containing three or four javelins.

The artillery were used both for hurling missiles in battle, and for the attack on fortresses. The tormentum, which was an elastic instrument, discharged stones and darts, and was held in general use until the discovery of gunpowder. In besieging a city, the ram was employed for destroying the lower part of a wall, and the balista, which discharged stones, was used to overthrow the battlements. The balista would project a stone weighing from fifty to three hundred pounds. The aries, or battering-ram, consisted of a large beam made of the trunk of a tree, frequently one hundred feet in length, to one end of which was fastened a mace of iron or bronze resembling in form the head of a ram; it was often suspended by ropes from a beam fixed transversely over it, so that the soldiers were relieved from supporting its weight, and were able to give it a rapid and forcible swinging motion backward and forward. When this machine was further perfected by rigging it upon wheels, and constructing over it a roof, so as to form a testudo, which protected the besieging party from the assaults of the besieged, there was no tower so strong, no wall so thick, as to resist a long-continued attack, the great length of the beam enabling the soldiers to work across the defensive ditch, and as many as one hundred men being often employed upon it. The Romans learned from the Greeks the art of building this formidable engine, which was used with great effect by Alexander, but with still greater by Titus in the siege of Jerusalem; it was first used by the Romans in the siege of Syracuse. The vinea was a sort of roof under which the soldiers protected themselves when they undermined walls. The helepolis, also used in the attack on cities, was a square tower furnished with all the means of assault. This also was a Greek invention; and the one used by Demetrius at the siege of Rhodes, B. C. 306, was one hundred and thirty-five feet high and sixty-eight wide, divided into nine stories. The turris, a tower of the same class, was used both by Greeks and Romans, and even by Asiatics. Mithridates used one at the siege of Cyzicus one hundred and fifty feet in height. These most formidable engines were generally made of beams of wood covered on three sides with iron and sometimes with rawhides. They were higher than the walls and all the other fortifications of a besieged place, and divided into stories pierced with windows; in and upon them were stationed archers and slingers, and in the lower story was a battering-ram. The soldiers in the turris were also provided with scaling-ladders, sometimes on wheels; so that when the top of the wall was cleared by means of the turris, it might be scaled by means of the ladders. It was impossible to resist these powerful engines except by burning them, or by undermining the ground upon which they stood, or by overturning them with stones or iron-shod beams hung from a mast on the wall, or by increasing the height of the wall, or by erecting temporary towers on the wall beside them.

Thus there was no ancient fortification capable of withstanding a long siege when the besieged city was short of defenders or provisions. With forces equal between the combatants an attack was generally a failure, for the defenders had always a great advantage; but when the number of defenders was reduced, or when famine pressed, the skill and courage of the assailants would ultimately triumph. Some ancient cities made a most obstinate resistance, like Tarentum; like Carthage, which stood a siege of four years; like Numantia in Spain, and like Jerusalem. When cities were of immense size, population, and resources, like Rome when besieged by Alaric, it was easier to take them by cutting off all ingress and egress, so as to produce famine. Tyre was taken by Alexander only by cutting off the harbor. Cyrus could not have taken Babylon by assault, since the walls were of such enormous height, and the ditch was too wide for the use of battering-rams; he resorted to an expedient of which the blinded inhabitants of that doomed city never dreamed, which rendered their impregnable fortifications useless. Nor probably would the Romans have prevailed against Jerusalem had not famine decimated and weakened its defenders. Fortified cities, though scarcely ever impregnable, were yet more in use in ancient than modern times, and greatly delayed the operations of advancing armies; and it was probably the fortified camp of the Romans, which protected an army against surprises and other misfortunes, that gave such permanent efficacy to the legions.

The chief officers of the legion were the Tribunes; and originally there was one in each legion from the three tribes,–the Ramnes, Luceres, and Tities. In the time of Polybius the number in each legion was six. Their authority extended equally over the whole legion; but to prevent confusion, it was the custom for them to divide into three sections of two, and each pair undertook the routine duties for two months out of six; they nominated the centurions, and assigned each to the company to which he belonged. These tribunes at first were chosen the commanders-in-chief, by the kings and consuls; but during the palmy days of the republic, when the patrician power was pre-eminent, they were elected by the people, that is, the citizens. Later they were named, half by the Senate and half by the consuls. No one was eligible to this great office who had not served ten years in the infantry or five in the cavalry. The tribunes were distinguished by their dress from the common soldier. Next in rank to the tribunes, who corresponded to the rank of brigadiers and colonels in our times, were the Centurions, of whom there were sixty in each legion,–men who were more remarkable for calmness and sagacity than for courage and daring valor; men who would keep their posts at all hazards. It was their duty to drill the soldiers, to inspect arms, clothing, and food, to visit the sentinels and regulate the conduct of the men. They had the power of inflicting corporal punishment. They were chosen for merit solely, until the later ages of the empire, when their posts were bought, as is the case to some extent to-day in the English army. The centurions were of unequal rank,–those of the Triarii before those of the Principes, and those of the Principes before those of the Hastati. The first centurion of the first maniple of the Triarii stood next in rank to the tribunes, and had a seat in the military councils. His office was very lucrative. To his charge was intrusted the eagle of the legion. As the centurion might rise from the ranks by regular gradation through the different maniples of the Hastati, Principes, and Triarii, there was great inducement held out to the soldiers. It would, however, appear that the centurion received only twice the pay of the ordinary legionary. There was not therefore so much difference in rank between a private and a captain as there is in our day. There were no aristocratic distinctions in the ancient world so marked as those existing in the modern. In the Roman legion there was nevertheless a regular gradation of rank, although there were but few distinct offices. The gradation was determined not by length of service, but for merit alone, of which the tribunes were the sole judges; hence the tribune in a Roman legion had more power than that of a modern colonel. As the tribunes named the centurions, so the centurions appointed their lieutenants, who were called sub-centurions. Still below these were two sub-officers, or sergeants, and the decanus, or corporal, to every ten men.

There was a change in the constitution and disposition of the legion after the time of Marius, until the fall of the republic. The legions were thrown open to men of all grades; they were all armed and equipped alike; the lines were reduced to two, with a space between every two cohorts, of which there were five in each line; the young soldiers were placed in the rear; the distinction between Hastati, Principes, and Triarii ceased; the Velites disappeared, their work being done by the foreign mercenaries; the cavalry ceased to be part of the legion, and became a distinct body; and the military was completely severed from the rest of the State. Formerly no one could aspire to office who had not completed ten years of military service, but in the time of Cicero a man could pass through all the great dignities of the State with a very limited experience of military life. Cicero himself did military service in but one campaign.

Under the emperors there were still other changes. The regular army consisted of legions and supplementa,–the latter being subdivided into the imperial guards and the auxiliary troops.

The Auxiliaries (Socii) consisted of troops from the States in alliance with Rome, or those compelled to furnish subsidies. The infantry of the allies was generally more numerous than that of the Romans, while the cavalry was three times as numerous. All the auxiliaries were paid by the State; their infantry received the same pay as the Roman infantry, but their cavalry received only two thirds of what was paid to the Roman cavalry. The common foot-soldier received in the time of Polybius three and a half asses a day, equal to about three cents; the horseman three times as much. The praetorian cohorts received twice as much as the legionaries. Julius Caesar allowed about six asses a day as the pay of the legionary, and under Augustus the daily pay was raised to ten asses,–little more than eight cents per day. Domitian raised the stipend still higher. The soldier, however, was fed and clothed by the government.

The Praetorian Cohort was a select body of troops instituted by Augustus to protect his person, and consisted of ten cohorts, each of one thousand men, chosen from Italy. This number was increased by Vitellius to sixteen thousand, and they were assembled by Tiberius in a permanent camp, which was strongly fortified. They had peculiar privileges, and when they had served sixteen years received twenty thousand sesterces, or more than one hundred pounds sterling. Each praetorian had the rank of a centurion in the regular army. Like the body-guard of Louis XIV. they were all gentlemen, and formed gradually a great power, like the Janissaries at Constantinople, and frequently disposed of the purple itself.

Our notice of the Roman legion would be incomplete without some description of the camp in which the soldier virtually lived. A Roman army never halted for a single night without forming a regular intrenchment capable of holding all the fighting men, the beasts of burden, and the baggage. During the winter months, when the army could not retire into some city, it was compelled to live in the camp, which was arranged and fortified according to a uniform plan, so that every company and individual had a place assigned. We cannot tell when this practice of intrenchment began; it was matured gradually, like all other things pertaining to all arts. The system was probably brought to perfection during the wars with Hannibal. Skill in the choice of ground, giving facilities for attack and defence, and for procuring water and other necessities, was of great account with the generals. An area of about five thousand square feet was allowed for a company of infantry, and ten thousand feet for a troop of thirty dragoons. The form of a camp was an exact square, the length of each side being two thousand and seventeen feet; there was a space of two hundred feet between the ramparts and the tents to facilitate the marching in and out of soldiers, and to guard the cattle and booty; the principal street was one hundred feet wide, and was called Principia. The defences of the camp consisted of a ditch, the earth from which was thrown inward, and of strong palisades of wooden stakes driven into the top of the earthwork so formed; the ditch was sometimes fifteen feet deep, and the vallum, or rampart, ten feet in height. When the army encamped for the first time the tribunes administered an oath to each individual, including slaves, to the effect that they would steal nothing out of the camp. Every morning at daybreak the centurions and the equites presented themselves before the tents of the tribunes, and the tribunes in like manner presented themselves before the praetorian, to learn the orders of the consuls, which through the centurions were communicated to the soldiers. Four companies took charge of the principal street, to see that it was properly cleaned and watered; one company took charge of the tent of the tribune; a strong guard attended to the horses, and another of fifty men stood beside the tent of the general, that he might be protected from open danger and secret treachery. The velitesmounted guard the whole night and day along the whole extent of the vallum, and each gate was guarded by ten men; the equites were intrusted with the duty of acting as sentinels during the night, and most ingenious measures were adopted to secure their watchfulness and fidelity. The watchword for the night was given by the commander-in-chief. “On the first signal being given by the trumpet, the tents were all struck and the baggage packed; at the second signal, the baggage was placed upon the beasts of burden; and at the third, the whole army began to move. Then the herald, standing at the right hand of the general, demands thrice if they are ready for war, to which they all respond with loud and repeated cheers that they are ready, and for the most part, being filled with martial ardor, anticipate the question, ‘and raise their right hands on high with a shout.'” [3]

From what has come down to us of Roman military life, it appears to have been full of excitement, toil, danger, and hardship. The pecuniary rewards of the soldier were small; he was paid in glory. No profession brought so much honor as the military; and it was from the undivided attention of a great people to this profession, that it was carried to all the perfection which could be attained before the great invention of gunpowder changed the art of war. It was not the number of men employed in the Roman armies which particularly arrests attention, but the genius of organization which controlled and the spirit which animated them. The Romans loved war, but so reduced it to a science that it required comparatively small armies to conquer the world. Sulla defeated Mithridates with only thirty thousand men, while his adversary marshalled against him over one hundred thousand. Caesar had only ten legions to effect the conquest of Gaul, and none of these were of Italian origin. At the great decisive battle of Pharsalia, when most of the available forces of the empire were employed on one side or the other, Pompey commanded a legionary army of forty-five thousand men, and his cavalry amounted to seven thousand more, but among them were included the flower of the Roman nobility; the auxiliary force has not been computed, although it was probably numerous. In the same battle Caesar had under him only twenty-two thousand legionaries and one thousand cavalry. But every man in both armies was prepared to conquer or die. The forces were posted on the open plain, and the battle was really a hand-to-hand encounter, in which the soldiers, after hurling their lances, fought with their swords chiefly; and when the cavalry of Pompey rushed upon the legionaries of Caesar, no blows were wasted on the mailed panoply of the mounted Romans, but were aimed at the face alone, as that only was unprotected. The battle was decided by the coolness, bravery, and discipline of Caesar’s veterans, inspired by the genius of the greatest general of antiquity. Less than one hundred thousand men, in all probability, were engaged in one of the most memorable conflicts which the world has seen.

Thus it was by blended art and heroism that the Roman legions prevailed over the armies of the ancient world. But this military power was not gained in a say; it took nearly two hundred years, after the expulsion of the kings, to regain supremacy over the neighboring people, and another century to conquer Italy. The Romans did not contend with regular armies until they were brought in conflict with the king of Epirus and the phalanx of the Greeks, “which improved their military tactics, and introduced between the combatants those mutual regards of civilized nations which teach men to honor their adversaries, to spare the vanquished, and to lay aside wrath when the struggle is ended.”

After the consolidation of Roman power in Italy, it took but one hundred and fifty years more to complete the conquest of the world,–of Northern Africa, Spain, Gaul, Illyria, Epirus, Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, Pontus, Syria, Egypt, Bithynia, Cappadocia, Pergamus, and the islands of the Mediterranean. The conquest of Carthage left Rome without a rival in the Mediterranean, and promoted intercourse with the Greeks. The Illyrian wars opened to the Romans the road to Greece and Asia, and destroyed the pirates of the Adriatic. The invasion of Cisalpine Gaul, now that part of Italy which is north of the Apennines, protected Italy from the invasion of barbarians. The Macedonian War against Philip put Greece under the protection of Rome, and that against Antiochus laid Syria at her mercy; when these kingdoms were reduced to provinces, the way was opened to further conquests in the East, and the Mediterranean became a Roman lake.

But these conquests introduced luxury, wealth, pride, and avarice, which degrade while they elevate. Successful war created great generals, and founded great families; increased slavery, and promoted inequalities. Meanwhile the great generals struggled for supremacy; civil wars followed in the train of foreign conquests; Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Antony, Augustus, sacrificed the State to their own ambitions. Good men lamented and protested, and hid themselves; Cato, Cicero, Brutus, spoke in vain. Degenerate morals kept pace with civil contests. Rome revelled in the spoils of all kingdoms and countries, was intoxicated with power, became cruel and tyrannical, and after sacrificing the lives of citizens to fortunate generals, yielded at last her liberties, and imperial despotism began its reign. War had added empire, but undermined prosperity; it had created a great military monarchy, but destroyed liberty; it had brought wealth, but introduced inequalities; it had filled the city with spoils, but sown the vices of self-interest. The machinery remained perfect, but life had fled. It henceforth became the labor of Emperors to keep together their vast possessions with this machinery, which at last wore out, since there was neither genius to repair it nor patriotism to work it. It lasted three hundred years, but was broken to pieces by the barbarians.


Wilkinson is the best authority pertaining to Egyptian armies. The highest authority in relation to the construction of an army is Polybius, contemporary with Scipio, when Roman discipline was most perfect. The eighth chapter of Livy is also very much prized. Salmasius and Lepsius wrote learned treatises. Tacitus, Sallust, Livy, Dion Cassius, Pliny, and Caesar reveal incidentally much that we wish to know, the last giving us the liveliest idea of the military habits and tactics of the Romans. Gibbon gives some important facts. The subject of ancient machines is treated by Folard’s Commentary attached to his translation of Polybius. Josephus describes with great vividness the siege of Jerusalem. Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities is full of details in everything pertaining to the weapons, the armor, the military engines, the rewards and punishments of the soldiers. The articles “Exercitus,” in Smith’s Dictionary, and “Army,” in the Encyclopedia Britannica, give a practical summary of the best writers.

[3] Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities, article “Castra.”

Cicero : Roman Literature

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements